Last week the PBS NewsHour ran a fascinating segment about how the human brain reacts to the stimulus of music. Upon reading the transcript online, I noticed various links to other sites discussing the non-musical applications of music in areas such a mental health, the development of math skills, and the activation of the part of the brain that causes one to experience pleasure from chocolate and sex.
While I find many of these studies to be interesting and illuminating to read, I do question how we as musicians and educators sometime use them to further our desires to keep music in the forefront of students’ lives. I know that, as a teacher, I have succumbed to that impulse to share such material with my students’ parents to prove the value of investing in music for their young. I have copied articles of findings relating higher test scores to students with musical backgrounds. I have shared anecdotal stories relating music training to economic success—almost half of my fellow undergraduate orchestra members went off to careers in medicine, engineering, and other sciences.
Why do we have to justify having music in our lives? More specifically, why do we try to prove its extra-musical worth in education, instead of valuing a musical education for its own inherent qualities? It seems there is this unsaid feeling in our culture that while it is okay to participate in music making, it is not okay to do so in place or ahead of something else. I know of more than one instance in which a teacher has had to allay parents’ fears that their children could wind up on the streets if they take jazz band instead of that extra AP class. Similarly, music educators are often forced by school boards and administrators to alter their curriculum in order to integrate other subjects, from math to history to chemistry.
Music is not the only victim, as other arts are also being pushed to the wayside. It seems that in our country’s frenzy to be competitive in the global marketplace, governments and institutions are madly advocating for the predominance of the core subjects in our schools with the naïve assumption that if our entire population is proficient in the basics, we can out-do the rest of the world in economic prosperity. However, are these efforts creating a generation that is lacking in awareness of its culture as a whole? Is it making a population of Wonder Bread workers, capable of doing their jobs, but not capable of thinking or participating in their communities beyond them? Just like the bread, they may have essential nutrients, but lack any of the real richness, texture, and complexity needed to create a satisfying meal.
So, while I applauded the study of music and its relevance to other fields, I do worry how this data is used outside the respective research from which it comes. History has precedents for using science to dictate social policy. If we are not careful, how we musicians apply these studies to our work may actually hurt our standing in the culture, for it can unconsciously perpetuate the view that music cannot stand on its own two feet.